Where Will the Chief Executive Take Assessments Next?

Member Group : Allegheny Institute

Having recently lost a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case regarding his base-year assessment scheme, the County Executive is now threatening to take the case to Federal court. Considering the lawsuit losing streak the Executive and County Council are on, it might be wise to take a deep breath and consider the advisability of such a step.

As we pointed out in a previous Policy Brief (Vol. 8, No. 55), the developing pattern of the County Executive and County Council as defendants in lawsuits regarding their actions is very worrisome. Their record of losing court cases suggests a mindset that shows little regard for the rule of law and, even worse, it indicates no respect for their oath of office whereby they pledged to uphold the Constitutions of the U.S. and Pennsylvania as well obey all state laws and the County Charter.

Beginning in 2005 when the Court of Common Pleas first struck down the County’s assessment cap system, the Executive and Council have been on the losing side in cases involving their smoking ban ordinance and the plans to spend excess drink tax money on road and bridge work as opposed to mass transit as required by law. And, as noted above, the County lost the base year lawsuit in Common Pleas Court and subsequently the appeal to the State Supreme Court. Further, the Supreme Court is still in the process of reaching a decision on the appeal brought by proponents of a referendum to lower Allegheny County’s drink tax.

While the Supreme Court has ruled Allegheny County’s base year assessment strategy violates the state Constitution’s uniformity clause, the Court did not order all counties in the Commonwealth to reassess properties.

This has spurred the County Executive to consider filing suit in Federal court against the decision because it may violate County residents’ civil rights under the U.S. Constitution. He is having a legal team look into this possibility. Winning or even getting such a suit heard seems like a long shot on several levels. Federal courts are not likely to be eager to hear, let alone overturn, a state Supreme Court decision that was based on that state’s Constitution.

Moreover, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did not single Allegheny County out as is alleged. The ruling focused on the County because the County’s poor use of the base year elicited the suit. The Court’s decision clearly opens the doors for other counties to be sued if their base year system is producing gross inequities in assessments. And in the extremely unlikely event the Federal court overturns the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision the remedy would probably be to require all counties with high error rates in their assessments to reassess forthwith—including Allegheny County. All that would have been gained is a little time.

At the same time, the Executive is saying the state’s assessment system is broken and must be fixed legislatively in Harrisburg. Is that a recent realization? We and other analysts have been saying that for years. All of a sudden the Executive wants the Legislature to drop everything and devise a new assessment program for the state. Why didn’t the Executive lobby and call for assessment reforms much earlier? No doubt it would have been difficult—as well as risky. Any serious reform would have almost certainly been accompanied by mandated reassessments all around the state. Something very few politicians want to tackle.

The Executive is also frequently heard to say that reassessments will raise taxes for most property owners. If there is a no windfall provision for all taxing bodies using the assessments, total tax revenues will not go up. However, those who have been massively under-assessed will pay more while those who have been over-assessed or correctly assessed will pay less. The claim that most people will see tax increases is a smokescreen used by the Executive to scare people.

Currently, state law limits school districts and municipalities from reaping a windfall after a reassessment unless they vote to raise taxes. The County Executive complains this law is so full of loopholes and exemptions as to make it "totally irrelevant, totally bogus, and totally unenforceable." If this is the case then he should be working with members of the Legislature to tighten the law and close the loopholes. Indeed, the law should be changed to prevent any windfall gains from a reassessment. These steps would certainly be much easier to accomplish than having the General Assembly write a whole new assessment law.

At every juncture in the long running saga of Allegheny County property assessments, the Executive has chosen to take the politically expedient and therefore easiest road—even when that easy road inexcusably locked some property owners into over-assessments and inequitable tax bills while others skated with grossly under-assessed properties and paid far less than their fair share of taxes.

The time has come to do the right thing. County officials should get a good and correct set of assessments for Allegheny County. And all the while work with the General Assembly to write a state law that is up to date and more in line with practices around the country. That process will take some time, probably a couple of years at least. It should be a priority of the Governor and the Legislature when they get back to work after the summer recess.
Jake Haulk, Ph.D., President Frank Gamrat, Ph.D., Sr. Research Assoc.
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